“God, it’s a lonely place.” So sings Evan Slamka, the frontman for Marjorie Fair, one of the most heralded bands this year with a long awaited album that’s been pushed back time and again. Whatever the reason, the end result speaks for itself. Slamka speaks to us about all the lonely places, the Skid Row apartment in which he dwelled in Los Angeles, the self-made isolation of being a tortured musician, the fact that all of us eventually die, yes, alone. Self Help Serenade is the perfect title for this endeavor into the human psyche. Meant as both an insight into the album and a reflection of the fact that the band members all tend to read self help books, like Slamka reading Tony Robbins’ Awaken the Giant Within, the title was more intentional than the band’s name. One of the band members mentioned the name to Slamka and he loved it, not having any idea that it was the name of a particular breed of rose. Once he found out, some of the mystery was gone, which is true of most things in life.
Slamka is the example of the boy all of us music fans were, dreaming of being in a band one day, putting out records, one with the music. I remember being laughed at when I tried to make up a band with some friends in the fifth grade. Of course, none of us could play instruments, but that didn’t stop me from writing a whole album’s worth of song lyrics with titles like “Computer World.” After the derision, I thought it silly and childish myself, but then again, Kraftwerk got away with it. Slamka had the balls to be in a band when he was nine years old called “The Beatles 2.” Who does that? Maybe that was the beginning of all his insecurities, the difference between myself and Slamka being he had the nerve to go on. Eventually, in the swamps of New Jersey, Slamka joined several bands, finally starting one he would lead, and named it Parlour (not to be confused with Will Oldham’s Palace moniker). The name eventually changed to Marjorie Fair.
Slamka’s songs have the earnest, heart-on-the-sleeve tenderness of Ben Gibbard, the tortured melodrama of Elliott Smith, and the soaring aural piano flourish majesty of Chris Martin. With this combination you’d think it would be a cinch that the album would be an instant classic, and I think it should be. Self Help Serenade is simply one of the most moving, accessible and touching singer / songwriter records produced so far this decade. While my review invokes the names of some more recent bands, others have been able to allude to other, more legendary acts, with Marjorie Fair garnering comparisons with the likes of Neil Young, Brian Wilson and John Lennon. High praise indeed, and earned.
Every song feels somewhat familiar. This is part of the magic of Slamka’s songwriting, and possibly also Rob Schnapf’s production. Evan’s work had enough power to lure Capitol Records to his door, as well as to get such a high profile producer, not to mention the help of musical luminaries Joey Waronker, Jon Brion and Billy Preston. Each song feels like we’ve heard it somewhere before, as if Slamka didn’t actually write them, but instead pulled them out of the people’s subconscious. After all, isn’t that what self help is? Reaching into the minds of people, pulling out the common sense, and then displaying it for all to see as if we had never heard it before? While I usually look down upon self help books for that very reason, there is something about Slamka’s songs, particularly opener “Don’t Believe,” “Empty Room,” and “How Can You Laugh,” that lulls you into a sense of security, a feeling that someone else is out there and will let you know that it’s all going to be okay.